The San Quentin Restorative Justice Roundtable hosts 150 incarcerated people in a 26 week cycle, 75 on Wednesday night and 75 on Thursday night. The program is held inside the prison’s Catholic Chapel and is generously supported by the Catholic Chapel’s clergy and staff. However, we are an interfaith group and invite people from all religions, spiritual backgrounds, and walks of life to join our group. The large group of 75 people on each night is then divided into small circles of 9 or 10 people each. Additionally, we reserve one circle for our Spanish speaking community. Each circle has a circle keeper, and at least one outside volunteer. This small group becomes your micro community for the six-month cycle.
Our circle keepers and co-keepers have been trained in the Restorative Justice circle process, and refresh their skills yearly. Gatherings, or “circles,” have been used in cultures throughout history, and have been the platform used to discuss a myriad of community issues. Using a circle process creates a space free of judgment and allows every voice to be heard equally. The flow of conversation is managed by the use of a talking piece, wherein only the person holding the piece may speak; all others are deeply engaged in listening. The circle keepers’ purpose within the group is that of a steward, sometimes posing questions to stimulate the conversation, or gently helping to keep the group on track.
This is the general structure of the Restorative Justice Roundtable’s weekly circles. Each circle has its own character, based upon the many personalities within, and it generally evolves over the course of each cycle. During the cycle, the small circles read and discuss the book, “The Little Book of Restorative Justice for People in Prison,” written by Barb Toews. All members in the circle are encouraged to participate, but sharing is not mandatory. Our cycles follow an agenda, which includes inspirational videos, and the occasional special guest. We also developed a curriculum based on the twelve chapters of Barb Toews’ book, making it possible for participants to earn credit for completing quizzes. However, participation in Restorative Justice isn’t simply an accomplishment- it’s a philosophy and a way of life.
The San Quentin Restorative Justice Roundtable began its evolutionary journey in the summer of 2005. It began with only a handful of incarcerated men, a couple of outside volunteers, and a desire for a deeper understanding about the impact of their crimes and how to begin a journey of healing for all.
At the time, rehabilitation hadn’t yet become a focal point in California prisons and self-help programs were scarce. Here we are, over ten years later enjoying great success. There are many people who are responsible for our longevity, but to name one we must name them all. In the spirit of Restorative Justice- no individual efforts are more or less important than any other in the success of this program.
Through its many changes in leadership, as well as in structure, our dedication to the the four core values of Restorative Justice has been constant: Respect, Care, Trust and Humility. These are the pillars that support us.
At the end of each night we recite a pledge:
I believe that violence is not a solution to any problem.
I believe that every person is endowed with a sacred dignity.
I believe that every person is capable of change, healing, and being restored.
I pledge to respect the dignity of every person.
I pledge to overcome violence with love and compassion.
I pledge to accompany and support anyone affected by crime on their healing journey.
I pledge to be an instrument of restoration, of forgiveness and reconciliation.